Friday, April 21, 2017

Go Natural

I just found this review in my unpublished drafts.  I was confused though, I could have sworn I had published this.  And then I realized that there are two companies, both of whom make similar snack bars, with nearly identical names: Be Natural (which I did review before, and enjoyed) and Go Natural.  Be Natural is from Australia, and ... so is Go Natural.

As you might have guessed, they try to make more natural, healthy snacks.  Their tag line is "Goodness Tastes Better".  They are gluten-free.

They make a number of product lines, including packaged nuts and seeds, savory spicy snack bars, fruit and cacao bars, and nut based bars, including an entire section of macadamia based bars.  I tried several bars while in Sydney.

Nut Delight

"The goodness of nuts in the original healthy snack bars."
Nut Delights come in a lot of varieties, all based around nuts and seeds, with different fruit mix-ins and coatings.   I know I tried other varieties, but I seem to only have notes on the simple classic Fruit & Nut Delight bars.
Fruit & Nut Delight.
"Our Fruit & Nut Delight combines almonds, walnuts, peanuts, sultanas, apricots, and apple sweetened naturally with Australian honey."

This was a classic granola bar.  Chewy style, kinda sticky, loaded with lots of different nuts and fruits.  I give them credit for having so many types of nuts and fruit in it.

The honey was a different touch than most granola bars, a lovely sweetness.  I liked it more than most granola bars, but it was still just a granola bar, and, it had a bitterness to it on the aftertaste that I didn't enjoy.

Macadamia Selection

"Naturally indulgent Australian-grown macadamia bars."

Macadamia based bars are their own line, again with different mix-ins, and different coatings.

Macadamia Dream.
"Our Macadamia Dream is the perfect natural indulgence. Luxurious Australian-grown macadamias are lightly roasted to enhance their richness, then sweetened with fragrant Australian honey and smothered in a creamy yoghurt coating. Dreamy!

This was very, very sweet.

And almost good.  Almost.

I like macadamias.  I like honey.  But this had way too much honey flavor.  It totally masked the macadamias, and, macadamia and honey is a bit of a strange combination in the first place.
  
Then there was the coasting.  What was it? Sweet yogurt? White chocolate?  I’m not sure.

I really didn’t care for this after more than one bite.
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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Alexander's Patisserie

It has been a long time since I've written about the Alexander's family of restaurants.

Going to the Alexander's Steakhouses, in Cupertino and Mountain View really is what turned me into a bit of a foodie (and, ok, a bit of a monster for a while during the foie gras ban days).  "Alexander's" was one of the first labels I added to my blog, which I added explicitly because I was writing about the same place so often.   

I still visit the San Francisco Alexander's Steakhouse a couple times of year, although now I reserve it for special occasions.  Since I last wrote though, the restaurant group has radically expanded.  The original location in Cupertino moved.  They opened more steakhouses; in Pasadena, Tokyo, and Taipei (!).  They introduced a seafood focused restaurant, The Sea, in Palo Alto (which makes so much since given how often I rave about the seafood dishes at the steakhouse!).

And ... they opened a patisserie (ok, two now, one in Mountain View and one in Cupertino).  Oh, be still my heart!  Yes, my favorite restaurant group opened a pastry focused establishment.  They brought in a very accomplished pastry chef from Belgium, who worked at the famed Pierre Herme in Paris (which of course I've reviewed), and Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas.  Let's just say I was excited to try it, particularly after the accolades started rolling in.


In October 2014, I was invited to the pre-opening event for Alexander's Patisserie in Mountain View.  To say I was excited was beyond an understatement.  At the time, Alexander's was my absolute favorite restaurant, which I clearly visited way too frequently, and you know me, baked goods are always my favorite, so, this was a dream come true for me.  However, they weren't able to be fully operational at the time (read on for more!)

I still haven't actually been to the store while in operation, but I've tried their treats on several occasions.  I now know, definitively, that I need to go to the store.  I *need* to try their kouign amann, and I need to try their banana chocolate croissant. This place, as expected, has quality products.

Pre-Opening Event, October 2014

I gleefully accepted an invite to the pre-opening, even though it was in Mountain View.

But ... quasi-disaster stuck.  I went all the way down to Mountain View to find that ... their final permit did not come in in time.  They couldn't use the kitchens yet.  Doh.

They served coffee and macarons, and showed off the space, but, they weren't able to offer anything else.  The coffee was fine, and the macarons were all decent (good cookies with slight give to them and proper chew), but, macarons are really not my thing, and I'll admit, I was pretty sad.
Decaf Coffee. $2.75.
They served Equator Coffee at the time, but have since moved to Stumptown.  I had decaf.  It was strong, dark, and particularly good for decaf.
Coffee Macaron. $2.25.
I started with the coffee macaron, filled with coffee ganache.

This macaron somehow made coffee taste delicate.  It was clearly coffee flavored, but in a really light way.  My third favorite variety.
Pistachio Macaron. $2.25.
Next I had a pistachio macaron, filled with toasted pistachio ganache.

It was a beautiful green color, with decent pistachio flavor throughout.  My forth favorite.
Chocolate Macaron. $2.25.
Next came a chocolate ganache filled macaron, with in it nibs too.

I loved the rich, dark chocolate ganache filling.  The cookie was slightly chocolate flavored.  My second favorite, and I really just wanted to eat a big bowl of the filling.
Vanilla Macaron. $2.25.
And finally, simple vanilla, with Tahitian vanilla bean ganache inside.

It was my absolute favorite.  Super sweet filling, it reminded me of frosting, but I really did like the sweetness.  The thick filling was balanced by delicate cookies.

[ No Photos ]
Lavender:
Lavender is a flavor I don't generally like, so I didn't take one myself, nor take a photo.  But I couldn't help myself from stealing a bite of Ojan's when he had one in his hand, it was such a beautiful light purple color.  I don't generally like lavender flavors, and this was no exception, but, if you like floral desserts, the flavor was nice, and fairly subtle.  Second to last favorite though.

Passionfruit:
Another flavor I don't tend to like is passionfruit (although I love the real fruit!) so I only took a bite of Ojan's, hence no photo.  Very strong quasi fake passionfruit flavor, which, predictably, I didn't like.  Least favorite.

Tarts, April 2017

In April, I was invited to a pre-opening event for Total Wines & More, in Mountain View.

I was there to admire the store and sip on wine, and, let's be honest, I was excited to check out the food.  Savory bites were provided catered by places ranging from Michelin starred Chez TJ to casual Pokéworks, but my eyes were on the Alexander's Patisserie table from the moment I walked in.  It took a lot of restraint to wait to go for the sweets until after I had some savories first.
Easter Themed Display.
They easily had the best looking display, decorated for Easter, with tactful, not plastic, "grass", chocolate eggs, and bunnies (and yes they made all the larger chocolate creations too!)
Tarts!
Their offering was mini tarts, beautifully presented perched on top of a "soil" of cocoa nibs, in clear glass "planters".  It might sound tacky, but really, it wasn't.

The crew did an impressive job of keeping the display perfectly stocked throughout the event.   While other tables ran low, they never did.

I guess I expect no less from an Alexander's establishment, but they were true professionals, and, I believe the head pastry chef himself was there at the event.

I have a confession though - just like I don't really like macarons, tarts aren't really my favorite either.  I like pie crust, I like puff pastry, I like many other vessels for fillings, but, tart shells?  Meh!  So, I wasn't thrilled to see tarts as their item offered.

The tart shells were about as good as a tart shell is going to be.  Buttery, nice texture, a bit crumbly, not too hard.  And at least they tasted like something.  As Ojan put it, "you don't need to just eat the insides out of them".  But let's talk about those insides.  Spoiler: swoon!
Chocolate, Vanilla, Lemon Tarts.
On my first round, I tried all three.  Yes, all three.  And yes, I said my first round.  I'm sorry, I like my sweets!  In my defense, I *did* ask if it was ok when I went back for seconds.  The tarts were too good to listen to social norms about acceptable levels of consumption.

Chocolate Tart: cocoa nib praline / 66% dark chocolate ganache.

Those who have been reading my blog for a while might notice something here.  Chocolate.  I don't eat chocolate at night (caffeine).  I rarely make exceptions.  I don't even really care for chocolate desserts that much (but, I *always* have dark chocolate in the morning alongside my coffee).  So, I wasn't excited for the chocolate one, really.  Still, I knew my opportunities to try Alexander's Patisserie were limited, and I wanted to make the most of it.

It was glorious, just like the chocolate filling in the macaron.  The base layer had cocoa nibs in it, a surprise to me, wonderful bits of crunch.  On top of that was dark, thick, decadent chocolate ganache.  I'd say that I'd love to eat a whole bowl as pudding, but actually, it was too rich to want to do that.  Maybe a *small* bowl, with some whipped cream on top?

Anyway, the amount here was just right, and it was a fantastic bite.  It had a cap of more dark chocolate and a touch of edible gold leaf for some bling.  My second favorite.

Vanilla Tart: Tahitian vanilla ganache / vanilla mascarpone cream.

This. Was. Amazing.

I had zero expectation for this.  "Vanilla", aka, bo-ring, right?  No way.  (Side note: I wished I had re-read my notes from the macarons to remember that they made an amazing vanilla ganache, and perhaps I would have been more excited!)

Anyway, the vanilla ganache was a thing of wonder.  It was thick, sweet, and intensely vanilla flavored.  I'll be honest ... I didn't think vanilla *could* taste this good.  It was incredibly rich, even more than the chocolate.  There is no way you could have a bigger bite of this.

On top was vanilla mascarpone cream, also glorious.  Also wonderfully vanilla flavored, also sweet and rich, and somehow complimentary to the ganache.  How does one rich sweet vanilla element compliment another rich sweet vanilla component?  I don't know, but, it did.

One could take three bites to eat each of these, if he or she had restraint.  And I did, the first time, as I didn't know it would be so wonderful.  But when I went back for another, it was all I could do not to eat it in a single bite.  I settled for two wondrous bites, knowing I'd actually appreciate it more that way.

Seriously, fantastic.

Lemon: lemon cream / lemon zest / lemon segments.

And finally, lemon.  I almost didn't take this one, and really, I shouldn't have.  I do not like lemon desserts.

And this ... well, it was a lemon dessert.  The lemon cream tasted like lemons.  I did not like that.

However, the meringue on top was excellent, sweet, fluffy, light, airy.  And I give them kudos for the perfect execution of the toasting of each and every one, and the fact that these delicate treats were not damaged at all in their display!  Still, I wouldn't want another of these.
Alexander's Patisserie Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Waffling Leftovers: Noodle Kugel

I did not grow up with noodle kugel.  I didn't even know it existed.  A major downside of growing up in a small rural town with zero diversity.  This makes me sad, as, it turns out, I really enjoy it.

The first noodle kugel I ever had was from Wise Sons, a cold sweet version, served with seasonal jam.  I ordered it because I was fascinated by the idea, and I knew it sounded like something I would like: I love casseroles, puddings, bread puddings, and things with crispy tops.  Since then, I've had several savory versions too, such as spinach noodle kugel, and parmesan sour cream potato kugel topped with tomato sauce.

I still find all variations fascinating, and I never quite know what to make of them.  Savory versions seem like they could be side dishes or mains.  Sweet ones seem equally suited for breakfast or dessert.  Should I eat it warm, or cold, or either?  What about extra toppings?  I always want to drizzle some maple syrup on sweet versions at breakfast.  Am I really eating sweet mac and cheese?  I wish I had more exposure to these items growing up!
Breakfast Noodle Kugel Transformation.
This recent adventure was with a sweet breakfast kugel.  I had extra, and you know me, if there is any chance of crispy bits enhancing something, my mind immediately jumps to waffling it (if you don't know what I'm talking about, go start with my master post).

So, Leftover Noodle Kugel: Will it Waffle?  Sure.
The Original: Blueberry Cream Cheese Kugel.
The original was absolutely delicious sweet noodle kugel, served at my office for breakfast.

It was creamy inside, with sour cream, cream cheese, and cottage cheese mixed together to create pockets of slightly tart cheesiness.  It was perfectly moist and custardy inside, but had crispy bits on top from sliced almonds and noodles themselves.  Studded throughout with juicy blueberries.  Accented with lemon zest and vanilla for a bit of extra complexity in the flavor.  Dusted with powdered sugar and topped off with fresh blueberries.

It was very, very good, and served in giant slices.  I polished one off in an instant, alongside a few other breakfast items.  I realized that one slice was bigger than I needed even, but I wanted more.  I took a second slice.  I started in on it.  And then my stomach caught up with me.

But, I certainly did not throw it out.
Cold Leftovers.
Into the fridge my leftovers went.

I tried a few bites cold, and it was perfectly tasty.  I'm sure it would have been fine simply reheated in the toaster oven too.  But I saw an opportunity to experiment, and I couldn't resist.

Inspired by the crispy bits on top that I liked, I schemed to get more crispy bits, by waffling it, of course.
Mid-Way Cooking.
So into the waffle iron a chunk went.

Simple setup, 350 degrees.  No extra crusting or work done, although I think this would have lent itself nicely to crusting with some cornflakes, or a sugar coating to caramelize on the outside.

It cooked easily, no drama.  I held form well, extracted easily, made no mess, didn't burnt.
Waffled Blueberry Cream Cheese Kugel.
The result was basically what you'd expect.  Crispy noodle edges, all around.  Still fairly custardy inside.

I topped it with a dollop of whipped cream because I couldn't resist, and then returned to add some powdered sugar and cinnamon too, but what I really wanted was a drizzle of maple syrup.  Next time ...

I don't see it as a radical improvement on traditional reheating, or even eating cold, but overall, it was absolutely fine, and if you like crispy bits on your kugel, you'll like this.
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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Breakfast @ The Gallery, W Hotel, Boston

Update Review, December 2016

Start with my original review from July, where I discovered their fantastic baked goods, then, return here.
Banana Bread Pudding French Toast. $17.
"Vermont maple syrup and white chocolate. Served with fresh berries and banana."

On my previous visit, I didn't find the cooked food to be very good, and the menu then had nothing really all that appealing to me anyway (the only "breakfast carbs", besides the pastries, were some soggy Nutella pancakes).  However, this time ... a single new item was added to the menu: french toast!  And not just any french toast "bread pudding french toast".  Oh yes!  I ignored the fact that I'm not actually a fan of banana bread ...

My order arrived fairly quickly, 2 slices of french toast, made from banana bread as expected.  It was covered in shaved white chocolate and served with a little pot of maple syrup on the side and a pile of berries and bananas.

The fruit wasn't particularly good, just as my previous visit.  Not bad, but, it was December, and it certainly wasn't local or flavorful.

The white chocolate added a ton of sweetness, and melted in, and of course I liked that.

But the french toast itself ... that was kinda meh for me.  The crusts were hard, and it was, well, banana bread.  It was nicely moist and fairly fluffy though, I suspect this is what made it "bread pudding french toast"?  It was fine, but, it didn't scream "bread pudding" in the way I was hoping, and I wouldn't get it again.
Muffins (Banana-Nut, Blueberry, Bran), Pain au Chocolat. $6 each or 3 for $13.
After my lackluster french toast, and the uninspired breakfast menu, I went back to what I knew was good: the baked goods.  I got them as a "pastry basket", and took togo.  I opted for one of each of the three types of muffins, plus a pain au chocolat (other options for pastries are just a regular croissant or assorted bagels).  I enjoyed all of these during my last visit.

The bran muffin turned out to be my favorite this time.  Dense, loaded with plump raisins, hearty.  I had it at room temperature, but I think it would be great warmed, and even better buttered up and slathered in jam (they did provide me with Dickinson's grape jelly and strawberry preserves).

The blueberry was again loaded with blueberries, and I liked the flavor in the base.

Interestingly, the banana nut was my least favorite this time, even though I had liked it the most last time.  I really just wasn't into the banana flavor, not that I ever really am.  I did like the nuts.

As before, the baked goods are available for $6 each, or a "Pastry Basket" of 3 for $13.  I clearly got a pastry basket (one of each muffin!), but still had some allowance left on my daily breakfast, so I added in a pain au chocolate as well.
Pain au Chocolat: Inside.
I added the chocolate croissant, er, pain au chocolat, mostly because I had more $$ I could spend in my credits, but also because chocolate sounded really good at the time, and I knew they make a decent croissant.

Which, they did.  Look at the loft! The layers!  It really was nicely layered, crispy on the outside, moist on the inside.  But the pastry dough didn't have much flavor, and wasn't as buttery as I'd like.

The chocolate inside was good, but I lamented that there wasn't nearly as much as I wanted, just a single, rather than double, bar.

Individually for $6 this was very pricey, but if gotten as part of a pastry basket each item is $4.33, which is a little more reasonable?

Original Review, July 2016

When I travel, I most often stay at Starwood properties, as I somehow achieved Platinum status due to all my frequent travels.  As part of my status, I also can choose to receive free breakfast (or points, or a welcome amenity).  I'm a breakfast lover, so, I often pick breakfast, as you've probably noticed by now.

My travels took me to Boston this past year, to work from our Cambridge office for a few days before joining my family in New Hampshire.  I stayed at the W in Boston, a bit of a walk to the office, but, one I picked because it sounded like it would be much better than the closer options (plus, it was more affordable).  The hotel was quite nice, and I'd gladly stay again.

But back to the food.  Starwood hotels all choose to offer something different as part of the Platinum breakfast amenity.  Some will literally just have a little room on the side with 1-2 token pastries, warm juice, and coffee, even if they have a full restaurant (ahem, Le Meridien Delfina!).  Others give you access only to the continental buffet (like the SLS Beverley Hills, which has the most amazing continental buffet ever, with dessert-worthy yogurt parfaits and quality pastries).  Most commonly, you get access to a full buffet, generally including eggs cooked to order and a few hot items (like the extensive but not tasty Mosiac Restaurant at the Westin in Sydney).  For locations with executive lounges, you can also opt to take your breakfast from the buffets there (like the lackluster Westin Martin Place or amazing Sheraton on the Park in Sydney).  Properties without a lounge or restaurant, like Aloft, will give you a $10 credit to spend in their little convenience store (like I tried in Buffalo).  And then there are the cases where they have a restaurant, but not a buffet.  In these cases, you are usually given an credit to spend in the restaurant however you want.  While I do love buffets, as I love to try all the things, the a la carte breakfasts are quickly becoming my favorite (and, protip, sometimes, even if they have a buffet, you can opt for an a la carte allowance instead!)

The W Boston was the first time I was given an a la carte option at a Starwood property, as they do not have a buffet nor lounge, just a restaurant, "The Gallery".   Except, we weren't actually given an a la carte option, instead, we were told that we had the "Substance" breakfast: 2 eggs, crispy potatoes, toast, bacon/ham/sausage, juice, and coffee, normally $24.  I of course did my research and knew that I could opt for a $24 credit instead, and spend it as I pleased, since I didn't really want eggs and toast and um, they had pancakes and baked goods on the menu.

So, both Ojan and I were given an allowance of $24 to spend daily, and could choose to dine in, or, as I discovered a few days in, we could get it to go to enjoy either in the comfort of my room, or, on the walk in to the office.

I really appreciated how flexible the breakfast option was, and enjoyed trying several things on the menu.  Most of the a la carte food was pretty mediocre, but, the pastries were actually shockingly good, which is the opposite of what I've come to expect, as most places have really crappy baked goods.  Also, protip, you can get a lot of pastries for $48 ...

The Space

Interior.
The restaurant was fairly inoffensive but totally boring, decor-wise.  Brown, beige, and white, no real color anywhere.  The lighting, curtains, and accents at least made it not feel sterile, and were clearly done by a designer, but, still, not much zing to the place.

The room was made up of mostly tables for 2 or 4, generally chairs, although there were a few higher tables with stools and a few with bench seating.
Table.
Tables were wooden, had brownish placemats, and cloth napkins.  Coffee mugs, water cups, and juice glasses were all set on the tables, along with succulents in pots.
Condiments.
Each table also had an adorable mini ketchup, tabasco, honey, and two types of Dickenson's jams, along with salt and pepper shakers, and assorted sweeteners.
Menu.
The "Wake Up" menu, in addition to the "Substance" option they seemed to push everyone towards, was also broken into specialities, sides, and bakery, plus assorted beverages.

Beverages

For drinks, there is coffee by Fonte ($6 for drip, $7 for espresso drinks), tea by Tea Forte ($7), assorted juices not from concentrate ($6), milks ($6), and a smoothie ($9).
Decaf Americano. $7.
The first day, I opted for a simple decaf coffee.  It was poured out of a carafe, and it was rather awful.  I tried adding tons of sweetener, I tried thinning it down with water, it was just awful.  Nothing saved it.

The next day, I asked if they had french press decaf.  Nope.  So I went for a decaf Americano.  It was crazy strong, and not very hot, so I ordered extra hot water to add in, to both warm it up and thin it out.  It was better, but still not very good.

Finally, the last day, I decided to ditch the coffee, and go for a hot chocolate.  I hoped it would be made with milk, maybe topped with some whipped cream.  But ... it seemed to just be mix and water.  It wasn't rich, it wasn't chocolately, it wasn't good.  And $7??!!
Pineapple Juice. $6.
The juice selection is surprisingly extensive, ranging from classics like orange and apple, to pomegranate, pineapple, cranberry, grapefruit, and tomato.

Ojan went for a grapefruit juice one day.  It was fine, but, just juice, not fresh squeezed or anything.  I opted for pineapple juice a few days later, when I had a sore throat, and was really craving cold juice.  I actually liked it, it was crazy sweet, and fruity, and what I was in the mood for.

Egg Dishes

Egg dishes all come with crispy potatoes and toast.  Options aren't extensive or customizable really, only a single type of omelet (with manchego cheese and chorizo hash, $18), an egg white omelette (with broccolini and smoked gouda, $19), eggs benny (available 3 ways: tasso ham, smoked salmon, or sauteed baby kale with roasted red pepper hollandaise, all $20), and a frittata (wild mushroom, white truffle oil, smoked cheddar, $19).
Egg White Omelet / Broccolini / Smoked Gouda / Crispy Potatoes / Toast. Togo. $19.
One morning, I wasn't feeling well.  Pastries didn't sound good to me (I know, shocker.  But, it happens).  Pancakes didn't sound good to me.  Nothing sounded good.  I just wanted something simple and plain.  I actually wanted some fruit, but, the fruit plate was composed mostly of melons, plus apples which I don't really like, and since I'm allergic to melons, it wasn't really an option for me.

I decided to go out on a limb and get an omelet, even though I don't really like eggs very much.  I wasn't feeling the manchego in the regular omelet, so I opted for the egg white omelet, just because I wanted smoked gouda, not because I was trying in any way to be "healthy".

The toast I wasn't really planning to eat, but it came with the eggs, and I forgot to say I didn't want it. I think I was supposed to get to choose my type of bread, but I wasn't asked what kind, and I think I was given the multigrain.  The toast was just generic sliced bread, toasted.  It didn't seem to be buttered, nor was I provided any butter.  I wonder if that was because it was the healthy egg white omelet?  Or maybe they never butter it?  Or maybe they were supposed to give me butter?  Anyway, dry toast, even with some strawberry jam, was pretty boring, and I just nibbled a little.

The other side included with all egg dishes is "crispy potatoes".  They were not crispy.  They were soft and soggy and not really warm.  They weren't good, even when dunked into ketchup.  Did not like.

I got my breakfast to go, so I could go crawl back into my room, and my bag also contained one of the mini ketchups, a mini tabasco, and strawberry jam, along with plastic cutlery, salt, and pepper.  I appreciated that they included these.
Egg White Omelet: Inside.
As for the omelet, it was ... an omelet.  I don't know what I was thinking ordering it.  Egg whites, decently cooked I guess, but just egg whites.  The broccolini was literally just stuffed inside, not folded into the egg or anything.  It too was fine, but, just broccolini.  The smoked gouda was decent, smokey, flavorful, well melted.

So I guess it was exactly what it should have been, incredibly boring.  I wasn't really into it ... at all, but honestly, I don't know what I would have wanted given how sick I was feeling.

Specialties

The rest of the menu is the "Specialties", and isn't very extensive nor exciting: oatmeal ($11), granola with greek yogurt and fruit ($13), a fruit plate with yogurt ($16), and basic General Mills cereals (Cheerios, Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes, Raisin Bran, $6).  Slightly more interesting is the bagel and smoked salmon plate, with herb whipped cream cheese, caper berries, pickled red onion ($16).

There was only one dish that falls into my favorite category, aka, breakfast carbs (things like pancakes, waffles, french toast, bread pudding): nutella pancakes, served with berries and maple syrup, $16.  I obviously order them one morning.
Granola Refresh. $13.
"Greek yogurt, banana, berries"

I woke up one morning feeling ... healthy.  I don't know what was wrong with me.  I didn't want pancakes.  I didn't want eggs slathered in hollandaise or cheese.  I didn't want another basket of pastries.  No, I wanted fruit, yogurt, and granola.  Really, I think I was somehow imagining that all hotel yogurt would be like the insanely ridiculously best yogurt of my life that I had at the SLS in Beverly Hills (no, seriously.  I'd go back to LA, just to go to that hotel restaurant, just to have that yogurt again.  Its mind blowing!).

So, I ordered the "granola refresh", along with a side of sausage (more on that to come), because, really, who are we kidding, no matter how healthy I feel, I'm not ever just going to get yogurt and granola!

It was ... well, yogurt and granola.  Very generic, thick, tangy Greek yogurt, likely Fage or similar.  Not sweetened, not whipped, not infused with vanilla, just straight from a container.  On top was standard granola, clearly not housemade.  Since the rest of the cereals are General Mills brand, I assume it was too.  No interesting seasoning, no clumps, just granola and hard-as-rock raisins.

The fruit was a mix of blueberries, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, all incredibly lackluster, as it was the middle of winter.  Oh, and a sliced up half a banana.

I drizzled the honey from the table on top in hopes of improving things, but it didn't really help.  I ate the fruit, and I devoured my sausages, but the yogurt and granola really weren't for me.  If you like plain, basic yogurt and granola though, by all means, there was nothing wrong with it, it was just clearly not anything I ever should have ordered.
Nutella Pancakes / Mixed Berries / Maple Syrup. $16.
On my last day, I finally managed to order the pancakes.  I love my breakfast carbs, but didn't have time during the week to stop and have a slower paced pancake breakfast (besides the day I wasn't feeling good).  Plus, nutella isn't really my thing, so I wasn't super excited about the single pancake option.  And no whipped cream?  Boo.  But still, pancakes.

The fruit on the side was the same mix as served with the granola: blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and sliced banana.  It was the same level of not particularly good.

The pancakes were large, a stack of 3.  They were kinda gummy, kinda soggy, thin, and not particularly good.  I guess they did have some slight nutella flavor, and were dark brown, but, otherwise, not great.  I expected some Nutella spread on the side, or at least some whiped cream or something.

On the side I had a container with balls of butter and syrup.  I'm fairly certainly this was not real maple syrup, it was too sticky.  Not very good.

Overall, a disappointment, and besides the fruit, I didn't each much of it.  Luckily, Ojan opted for yet another "pastry basket" (more on that soon), so we had plenty of muffins to share.

Bakery

The "Bakery" section of the menu offers up $5 toast (and no, not the hip SF version, actually, just toast) and $6 bagels, pastries, and muffins.  The pastry selection is limited to only croissants (plain or chocolate).  The muffin line up features blueberry, raisin-bran, and a seasonal choice (banana nut at the time of my visit).

This was a pretty lackluster sounding "bakery" to me, as I was expecting to find scones and danishes, perhaps some cinnamon buns ...  But, given the low traffic the hotel sees for breakfast, and the lack of buffet, I guess I couldn't really expect them to have an extensive line up.

I didn't really expect that any of these "bakery" items would be great, but, you know me and baked goods, how could I resist?  Turns out, not resisting was a great move.

Also, I lied: there is one more bakery offering, the "Awake Pastry Basket" for $13,  made up of your selection of any 3 of the bakery items.  Since an individual pastry is $6, this is quite the bargain.  And, now that you know that Ojan and I had $48 per day to spend together, you can imagine just how many pastries we ordered (yes, we could get 10 per day!)  
Awake Pastry Basket To-Go: Raisin Bran Muffin, Blueberry Muffin, Pan au Chocolat. $13.
For my first pastry "basket", I opted for my first choice of pastries, the blueberry muffin.  I also selected a chocolate croissant, in order to mix it up in case the muffin wasn't very good.  Finally, I threw in one more selection, my last choice of muffin, raisin bran.

This may seem a bit odd, but it was very strategic.  Since a basket of 3 pastries was only $1 more than buying two individually, and I had the money included in my package, I went for the 3, obviously.  I was planning to get at least two (in case one wasn't good, plus, I like to try all the things).  I wanted to hedge my bets between the muffins and croissants.  And, still not expecting generic hotel pastries to be good, I threw in my last choice, just so I could try it, and get my curiosity out of the way.  Plus, I thought that maybe the basket was mini sizes rather than full, because really, what kind of breakfast is this?  Who orders a basket of these for breakfast?  As you can see, these weren't mini.

I laughed when I opened my bag to find my three, very large, pastries all smushed into the togo box together.  I wondered if when served at the restaurant they came in more of a "basket"?  I also thought "woah, what did you get yourself into, these are huge!"

I started with the blueberry muffin.  I took one bite, and stepped back, surprised.  Woah, where did this come from?  It was really, really good!  The top had a sweet streusel crumble.  I'm such a sucker for streusel.  It was crispy on top, just how I like.  Inside was moist and dense, although perhaps a little bit oily.  The blueberries inside were very flavorful, plump, and juicy, although there weren't tons of them.  Overall, really quite good, and they nailed the topping in particular (sure, it could have been less oily, and have more blueberries).

I quickly moved on to the raisin bran muffin.  It didn't have a streusel, but instead had an oat topping.  It too had a crispy top as I like, and was moist and dense inside, although again, a slightly too oily.  And, just like the blueberry muffin, the raisins were super plump, although again, like the blueberry, there weren't tons of them.  The base flavor had a complex sweetness to it, sorta like molasses.  Another quality muffin.

And finally, the pan au chocolat.  I'm not a huge fan of croissants, and always go for almond or otherwise filled, but again, I was just hedging my bets.  The croissant, like the muffins, was well executed.  The outside was crispy.  Inside was clearly defined layers, and it was moist.  It wasn't dried out at all.  The chocolate was quality dark chocolate, although, there wasn't tons of it.  Still, a good croissant.

Let's just say I was blown away.  These were all good, and clearly freshly baked.
Awake Pastry Basket To-Go: Raisin Bran Muffin, Blueberry Muffin, Banana Nut Muffin. $13.
The first day I got my pastry basket, Ojan went down on his own, and ordered just one muffin and one croissant.  Once I explained that for $1 more he could have a third item, and that it easily fit in our daily allowance, so the next day he opted to do so, and had me pick up his "basket" of muffins, along with a grapefruit juice.

Of course, I may have "helped" him out with some of these.  The raisin bran muffin was about the same as the day before, still a little too oily, but otherwise had a great flavor, and nice plump raisins.  I didn't try the blueberry, as it is his favorite and I had it the previous day, and he gobbled it up.

The banana nut turned out to be my favorite, and I immediately planned to order it myself again the next day.  Moist, good banana flavor, crunchy nuts, crispy top.

And of course, I did order the banana nut again (and again, and again).  Definitely my favorite of the muffins.  Crispy top, coated with sugar, moist interior, lots of nuts, banana flavor not to overwhelming.  Hands down favorite.
Blueberry Muffin.
One morning, all of my muffins arrived cut in half.  I'm not sure why, but, it enabled me to take close-up photos of the interiors, before I devoured them.

The blueberry muffin was always my second choice; I loved the streusel, the crispy top, and the moist decent base.  As I said before, the blueberries were huge, plump, and quite tasty, but here you can see illustrated my complaint that there were not many blueberries inside.
Raisin Bran Muffin.
The raisin bran was always my third choice, but one I was happy to eat.  It always had the oats on top, a molasses flavor to it, and plenty of raisins.  I wished I had tasty jam to slather on it.
Banana Nut Muffin.
But my favorite was always the banana nut.  Sugar on top, super crispy on top, moist inside.  Loaded up with walnuts, for extra crunch, and the banana flavor was never too overwhelming.

Sides

The final section of the menu is sides, such as plain or greek yogurt ($8), smoked salmon ($8), bacon ($7), sausage ($8), ham ($6), and potatoes ($7).
Pork Sausage. $8.
So, little known fact.  I love sausage.  Ok, not all sausage.  In fact, I don't really like sausages like you'd eat for lunch in a bun with toppings, I only like breakfast sausage, or crumbled sausage in pasta or on pizza.  I prefer patties, but a thick link with a crispy outside can be good too.  And, I like pork sausage, even though I don't really like many other pork products (other than bacon, pork belly, and uh, mortadella).  Heh, we can't control what we like, can we?

Anyway, to hedge my bets with the yogurt/fruit/granola dish, and to spend my full $24 credit, I added a side of sausage.  I had no idea what to expect, as it could be anything from a single sausage patty on the side, to a pile of greasy thin links.  I was quite pleased my when side arrived, 2 large, glistening, crispy sausage links.

The sausages were quite tasty.  Super crispy on the outside, just how I like.  They were thick and juicy.  Breakfast sausage style, so mildly seasoned.  Very large.  The serving of 2 of these was bigger than a regular lunch sausage, and really should have been split with someone, but, uh, I really liked my sausage, and had no one to share with.  How could I let this deliciousness go to waste?

I really love breakfast sausage drizzled with maple syrup, but I didn't have any (it comes with pancakes, so I'm sure I could have ordered some, but that certainly would have broke the bank!)  It was fine on its own, and easily devoured, but some syrup would have pushed it over the top.

It wasn't without faults though, as the sausage really was way too greasy.
Applewood Smoked Bacon. $7.
After the success of the sausage, I decided to go for bacon the next day when I was ordering to go.  The portion was 5 strips, slightly more modest than the two large sausages.

It was crispy, decently cooked bacon, but pretty greasy.  It didn't seem to have been drained.  I liked the crispiness, I liked the salt level, but, it was just bacon, nothing earth shattering.

$7 price was slightly lower than the sausage, but a bit crazy if you think about it as just 5 strips of bacon.
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Monday, April 17, 2017

Bagels (and cream cheese) from Panera Bread

Update Reviews, 2017

As you know, I've reviewed Panera bagels many times before.  I'm not much of a bagel eater in general, but, I do actually like some of Panera's bagels.  Panera's bagel collection includes the basics (plain, sesame, everything, whole wheat), the savory (asiago cheese, jalapeño cheddar), the slightly sweet (blueberry, chocolate chip, cinnamon swirl & raisin), and the decadent (french toast, cinnamon crunch), and an occasional seasonal special (Pumpkin Pie!).  The whole wheat are a great hearty choice and perfect for transforming into a savory dinner option with toppings, and some of the decadent sweet bagels can make a nice dessert, particularly if you, uh, waffle them (stay tuned!).  The rest are fairly boring, more like bread than bagels, but, I've tried them all at this point.

In full disclosure, I tried them all because my Panera account was targeted with a "Free Bagel Every Day" promotion, and you know I can't resist my freebies.

For most of my orders, I used the Panera app, or ordered online, which was generally easy, except for the fact that the app regularly didn't reflect reality of what they had in stock, so, I'd order something, and then it wasn't available, so the entire "Rapid Pick-Up" feature would fail, as I'd arrive, find nothing for me, and need to go inquire about it.

I discovered the biggest issue is that they allow you to set a pickup time in the future - later that day, or even up to two weeks later.  This is great (particularly if you are trying to redeem a free bagel every day ...), but, after talking with a store manager, I learned that the order doesn't get sent to them until 10 min before the pickup time.  So even if you order two weeks in advance, and really want a blueberry bagel, you aren't actually reserving it in any way.  This system could use some tweaking.  The store was always apologetic, but I learned I couldn't menu plan around counting on a bagel being available.

When you order online, there are 3 options for "Toast & Slice" customization: "Unsliced", "Sliced & Toasted", and "Sliced in Half".  The first two are pretty self explanatory.  I thought the third was as well.  I always picked up my bagel intending to bring them home and have later, toasted and topped as I pleased (or, thrown into the freezer).  I wanted to make it easy on myself, so I opted to have them sliced in half.  I expected that this meant slicing the way you would slice if you were toasting a bagel and/or putting on a spread.  It turns out ... there was no consistency in how this was interpreted.  Seeing exactly *how* the "slice in half" was done became a major source of amusement for me.  Again, note, I wasn't requesting anything special, you can select "Slice in half" when you order online, or through the app, or on the kiosk at the store.

Basics

Panera doesn't break the bagels up into categories, but, I do.  I consider the "basics" the flavors you can expect at basically any bagel shop or cafe: plain, sesame, everything, and whole wheat.  Panera prices these at $1.25, while the other varieties are more expensive, so, at some level I guess they do distinguish.
Everything Bagel. $1.25.
"Freshly baked bagel topped with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, garlic, toasted onion and kosher salt."

This is a standard Panera bagel.  Large, doughy.  The toppings are kinda mediocre; there are some poppy seeds, sesame seeds, bits of garlic, and onion, but, none really stand out and the quantity isn't particularly impressive.

The standard bagel is $1.25 (with no spread or just butter).
Sliced in Half. $1.25.
In this next installment of "sliced in half", we have ... sliced in the dimension I intended at least, but, still connected, not cut through, and totally uneven.  Isn't slicing bagels kinda a core practice at Panera?
Whole Grain Bagel, Sliced in Half. $1.25.
Next I went for my previous favorite, the whole grain.

And ... victory!  It was sliced in half the right way AND it was sliced evenly AND all the way through.  I knew they could do it!

I got this on a day when I went to a chocolate festival, and spent hours walking around eating chocolate of all varieties: milkshakes, hot chocolate, ice cream sundaes, chocolate marshmallows, chocolate mousse ... let's just say I needed something to uh, soak up all the chocolate.  I certainly didn't want anything sweet.  I ate the top half as-is.  Not toasted.  No spread.  I really needed something simple!

The bagel had a bit of sweetness to it, as it is sweetened with honey, but mostly it was fairly hearty tasting (oats, rye, spelt, barley, amaranth, flax, and more are actually in there), and was what I needed.  It was soft and I liked the oats on top as before, they added to the healthy taste.  It would make a nice dinner roll.

As with other "basic" bagels, this was $1.25.
Whole Grain Bagel, Cream Cheese, Onions, Sweet Red Peppers, Herb Mix.
The other half I turned into a savory creation.  I used to make savory bagels for lunch/dinner all the time when I was in grad school.  I had a specific recipe: I'd start by toasting the bagel.  While it was toasting, I'd chop up onions and bell peppers.  After a light toasting, I'd add a layer of cream cheese, slices of sharp cheese, my veggies, and dried herbs.  Under the broiler it would go to melt the cheese and cook the veggies.  Sorta like pizza, but with cream cheese instead of tomato sauce, and with far nicer cheese.

I forgot about these bagels for years, until I had this whole wheat bagel, and happened to have cream cheese, onions, and peppers on hand.  I didn't have any good cheese, but it was pretty tasty without.  A nice savory bagel.

Sorry, this has nothing to do with Panera at this point I realize, but, it was a fun memory for me.
Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat, Sliced in Half. $1.49.
"Freshly baked bagel, pinched and slightly flattened, made with select ingredients, including sprouted wheat, rye, spelt and oats mixed with whole wheat flour and a touch of honey, then topped with oats."

In addition to the Whole Grain Bagel, Panera also makes a "Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat", also made with a mix of whole grains and topped with oats, and a "Sprouted Whole Grain Roll", made with a mix of whole grains and topped with oats.  I'm amused by the naming as one is "whole grain", one is "sprouted grain", and one is "sprouted whole grain".  I'm seriously guessing these are all about the same ingredients.  Anyway.

I decided to try the bagel flat, to compare with the regular whole grain bagel.  It seemed *much* smaller than a bagel, which made me originally question if I got the roll instead.  It does look like Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat I got in a breakfast sandwich once before, just, smaller.

Anyway, I'm not sure why this is branded as a bagel.  "pinched and slightly flattened" really doesn't describe it.  "pinched" implies that it would still have at least an element of a hole?  This was a solid roll.  No question about it.  It also didn't really seem that flat, although, I guess, "slightly flattened" isn't *that* flat.

Anyway.  It was a good roll.  It was basically just like the whole grain bagel, just with no hole, smaller size, and perhaps a bit more oats on it.
Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat,  $1.49.
Since I liked the bagel flat before, I got another, and treated it much like the whole grain bagel above,, topping with cream cheese, onions, peppers, and herbs, except this time I also used some amazing sharp cheese.

The form factor of the flat was better since it had no hole, so I was able to slice it in half and add slices of cheese without the cheese falling into the hole.

It was crazy delicious.  This bread, er, bagel, just has so much heartiness and flavor to it, that melting on some awesome cheese and sprinkling with herbs made for something ridiculously satisfying, albeit simple.
Sesame Bagel, Sliced in Half. $1.25.
"Freshly baked bagel topped with nutty sesame seeds."

I laughed when I pulled the bagel out out the bagel. Technically, it *was* sliced in half, but, why would anyone want it this way?

This was a simple sesame bagel, not much notable about it (bready, plain, Panera bagel with some seeds on top), but, the "sliced in half" was done in a far less practical way. Lols.

Slightly Sweet

The next category I call "slightly sweet", and are again fairly basic flavors you can expect to find anywhere: blueberry, chocolate chip, cinnamon swirl & raisin, but are priced slightly higher at $1.49.
Blueberry Bagel, Sliced in Half. $1.49.

"Freshly baked bagel made with a mix of wild and cultured blueberries baked inside."

Another amusing interpretation of "sliced in half".

I tried a bite immediately to best evaluate the bagel itself.  It had a nice shine to the outside, a tiny bit of a crust, making it pleasant to bite into, even sans toasting.  Inside was fluffy and bread-y.  It had a decent distribution of berries, which added good flavor.  Overall, a decent enough blueberry bagel, and I'd get another if I really wanted.
Blueberry Bagel (February 2017).
So I did get another (and this time, it was sliced in half properly!)

However, I was pretty unimpressed.  My bagel had ... one blueberry in this entire half!  The entire bagel also tasted very fake, like a blueberry candy.

I topped it with butter and sugar, and hoped for the best, but, I still did not enjoy it.  Now, I won't get another.  Two strikes and you are out, Panera!
Chocolate Chip Bagel. $1.
"Freshly baked bagel made with milk chocolate flavored chips."

Chocolate and breakfast baked goods are not things that normally consider together.  Which I know sounds strange, given that I love baked goods, have no trouble eating sweets for breakfast, and often have a piece of chocolate alongside my morning coffee.  But for some reason, I just rarely go for chocolate muffins (although the one from Danbury Country store was good but the banana chocolate muffin from Costco, not so much), and I really disliked the chocolate chip pancakes from IHOP as a breakfast item.  So it took a long time for me to want to try a chocolate chip bagel.  It just isn't in the realm of things that make sense to me.

Anyway, eventually I decided to try the chocolate chip bagel.  I thought it might be tasty warmed up so the chips got all melty, and with a thin layer of melty peanut butter on top, a la peanut butter cup.  Or with a little Nutella?

As always, I tried a bite plain.  It was nice enough, basically what you'd expect, a decent number of decent enough chocolate chips, in an otherwise fairly unremarkable chewy base.  I didn't want to gnaw on it that way as it wasn't very interesting,
#slicedInHalf
Oh, and in today's installment of #slicedInHalf, we have a bagel sliced 70/30?

Savory

Next up, savory: asiago cheese and jalapeño cheddar, although the later is discontinued.  These are the same price as the sweets, $1.49.
Cheddar & Jalapeño Bagel. $1.49.
"Filled with jalapeños, sharp cheddar cheese, and a blend of salsa spices mixed in roasted corn flour dough."

This bagel was introduced in summer 2015 as a limited summer item.  Most Panera shops discontinued it after that summer.  It no longer appears on their website.  But my Panera still carries it.

I thought it would make for a good base for pizza bagels, a favorite easy dinner of mine, so, I ordered one.  Of course, I tried a bite before pizza-fying it.

It was ... not great.  It seemed a bit over-cooked, which you can kinda see here in the photo, it was darker than most.  The crust was harder, it wasn't a fluffy.  It did have some cheese pockets, and jalapeño bits, but, it really was just a kinda hard chunk of seasoned cheesy bread.
"Sliced in half".
Of course, I know you are curious how this "sliced in half" turned out.  The answer?  Um, not fully sliced in half.  While previous attempts had resulted in the bagels still being partially connected, this one was only sliced through about half way.

Getting bagels sliced in half is my new source of amusement in life.   I know, sad life.

Decadent

And lastly, the collection I've dubbed decadent, basically, dessert bagels: french toast and cinnamon crunch.
Pumpkin Pie Bagel, Sliced in Half. $1.49.
This time, I didn't order my bagel online, as the Panera App showed everything as sold out.  I was planning to make pizza bagels for dinner, and wanted Jalapeño Cheddar or Asiago bagels as my base, so I hoped it was just wrong.  I'd settle for plain, sesame, everything, whole wheat too ...

But, alas, I arrived at 4pm, and, sure enough, they were basically out of bagels.  They had one single bagel remaining: the seasonal special, pumpkin pie.  I recalled not thinking it was great before, and it certainly wouldn't work for a pizza bagel, but, I had bagels on the mind, so, I got it.

I tried a bite untoasted and without toppings and ... it wasn't bad.  It was soft, nicely spiced, and pumpkin-y.  The top had crumble and powdered sugar, making it definitely very sweet, and not at all what I should eat for dinner.  The bottom also had sugars caramelized all around it.

I brought the rest home, and did something kinda crazy with it.  I took the top, and decided to cook it in my waffle maker.  That is, rather than toast it, I just literally put it in the waffle maker.  As you may know, I kinda love waffling random things.

It was a crazy success.  I didn't take a photo, but, wow, it worked.  All the sugar and crumble on top got super caramelized.  The bagel mushed down and crisped up, sorta like a bagel chip, but still a bit more doughy inside.  I made a dip of equal parts whipped cream and cream cheese, and dunked my hot, caramelized bagel chips into it.  So good.  How have I never thought of waffling bagels before?
Cinnamon Crunch Bagel. $1.49.
"Freshly baked bagel made with cinnamon and vanilla flavored chips to flavor the dough and topped with a sweet, crunchy shell of cinnamon and sugar."

This turned out to be my absolute favorite bagel. It shouldn't surprise you that it is also the least healthy bagel Panera sells. By far.  A plain bagel is 290 calories, 1.5 g fat, 3 g sugar.  Not so bad.  Sesame, everything, whole grain, cinnamon raisin, etc aren't much worse.  The rest hover around ~350 calories (asiago is 330, blueberry is 340, cherry vanilla 360, french toast 350, and so on).  But this beast?  430 calories.  7 g fat, 32 g sugar.  Yup.

And why?  Cuz its delicious!

I tried it first at room temperature and was very impressed.  Soft, fluffy bagel base, good cinnamon flavor.  But the top of this thing is what blew me away.  It was just absolutely crusted and coated in cinnamon and large chunks of sugar.  Delicious.

I quickly toasted a chunk, as I could tell it would be even better warm.  It was.  Then I added butter, which, was also great, but actually unnecessary.  The top of this thing was like a magic combination of a cinnamon roll, cinnamon bread, and, I guess a bagel?  Although really, there wasn't much "bagel" about it, it didn't even have a hole.

The bottom half was less exciting as it didn't have the cinnamon and sugar coating, but, it did still have cinnamon and sugar flavors throughout, as it was studded with the cinnamon chips.  And, the edges of this were all caramelized too.

This was good at room temp, great warmed up, and I bet would be even better waffled!
Sliced in ... half?
And, yup, I asked to have it sliced in half.  This one did have a slice, but, it most certainly wasn't in half, and it wasn't cut through.
Cinnamon Crunch Bagel #2.
I liked the cinnamon crunch so much that I got it again.  This one had a much less substantial crust on it.  It still had plenty of ridiculous topping, don't get me wrong, but it only covered about half the top (the center), rather than extending down the sides.
Cinnamon Crunch Bagel: Waffled.
This time I took my own advice, and, just like the pumpkin pie, I waffled it, rather than toasting it.

It worked great!  The cinnamon coating formed a glaze on that side, and it collected pockets of butter just like, well, a waffle.  Highly recommended.

Rolls

 Sprouted Grain Roll.
"Freshly baked roll made with sprouted whole grain."

One time I visited and ordered a whole wheat bagel through the app before I arrived.  Except, when I got there, they didn't have any.  So I asked for the bagel thin.  Nope they didn't have those either.  I wanted a savory bagel, and the only remaining options were sweet.  The staff member asked if I wanted a roll instead, and said it was basically the same.  So I got it instead.

It was ... well, a roll.  I know Panera bagels aren't particularly authentic bagels, and they don't have that great of a boiled crust on them, but this was clearly just a roll.  The dough may have been the same, but, I think it was baked differently.

It was a fine roll, I liked the hearty flavor and the oats on top, but there was no mistaking it for a bagel.

 Update Review, September 2015

If you didn't read my original Panera bagel review, I suggest you start there, and then return to this update, since I'm skipping the background this time around.  See "Original Review, April 2014" below.
Whole Grain Bagel. $1.25.
"Freshly baked bagel made from whole spelt flour, millet, flaxseed and other wheat flours, sweetened with honey and topped with rolled oats."

For some reason, I didn't love my bagel this time, even though it was my absolute favorite last time. The bagel was fine, I liked the oats on top, but, I think I screwed up with my toppings.

This was really a tragedy, as I opted to get not one, but two different cream cheeses (I couldn't decide!). I love the Panera flavored cream cheeses. I like this bagel. But combined? It just didn't work. I kept just wanting simple butter (and honey) to accent the healthy, hearty nature of the bagel, not flavorful cream cheese.
Wild Blueberry and Hazelnut Cream Cheese. $1.39 each.
I couldn't make up my mind about what flavor of cream cheese I wanted to try with my bagel. I knew the tubs were only 2 ounces anyway, which, yes, is enough for a full bagel with no problem, but I like to slather it on pretty generously. Bagel == excuse to eat cream cheese after all.

Plus, I knew I could save extra, so, I went for two: wild blueberry because I'd never tried it, and hazelnut, as I had a vague memory of liking it before. I really wanted the cheesecake flavor, but alas, they didn't have it.
Wild Blueberry Cream Cheese.
Panera's cream cheese is decent. Always quite soft and spreadable, not quite like the "whipped" cream cheese you can buy that is really fluffy and airy, but also not hard to spread without destroying your bagel like basic cream cheese.

It was a beautiful purple color, and loaded up with tiny little blueberries. The flavor was decent. It didn't scream "OMG BLUEBERRY!", but you could tell what it was. I would prefer fresh, larger berries, but, for what it was, it was fine, although I likely wouldn't pick it again.
Hazelnut Cream Cheese.
The hazelnut cream cheese was great. Little bits of hazelnut, tons of flavor, soft and spreadable like all the Panera cream cheese.

Honestly, I could kinda just eat this by the spoonful, like a cheesecake. I also brought the leftover home and used it like a dip with pretzels later. I think it would be awesome on a chocolate chip bagel, so you could get the whole chocolate + hazelnut thing going on. It was fine with my whole wheat bagel, but not a match made in heaven. I'd certainly get this cream cheese again though

Original Review, April 2014

I've reviewed the muffins from Panera before, but somehow, I never wrote up a review of the item I most commonly get from Panera: bagels.  Are they the most authentic, delicious bagels out there?  Of course not.  But, particularly here in the Bay Area, we take what we can get.  And I'm a sucker for flavored cream cheeses, of which Panera offers many.
Whole Grain Bagel, Honey Walnut Cream Cheese.  $2.87.
One Sunday morning, I was really craving a bagel.  Not something I usually care that much about, as I don't have a place in the city that I love, but I really, really wanted carbs slathered in flavorful cream cheese.  I decided to try Panera.  While I didn't like any of the baked goods I tried last last time I was there, I did recall their bagels being decent years ago when I tried them, and I remembered that they had numerous flavored cream cheeses.

I looked up their bagel flavors online before heading to the shop, fully intending on getting either the french toast or the cinnamon crunch bagels.  They seemed to be the most popular, and get pretty great reviews.  And when I saw them in person, they looked just as decadent as everyone described.  But ... something went wrong just as I was about to order.  I realized I really, really didn't want something sweet.  I know, I don't get it either.  I love my sweets.

I asked the girl taking my order if the french toast bagel was really sweet.  "Oh yes, it is incredibly sweet.  It is basically just syrup.  They should call it the maple syrup bagel instead of the french toast bagel."  Hmm.  So, I totally changed my plan, and went for perhaps the most boring, and complete opposite thing imaginable: the whole grain.  Yes, really.  Like I said, I don't know what had gotten into me!  I couldn't even tell you the last time I had a whole grain bagel when given any other choice.  I was in a weird mood.  At least I paired it with a sweet cream cheese, the honey walnut.  I figured the whole grains and honey flavors would go together nicely.

Described as "made from whole spelt flour, millet, flaxseed & other wheat flours, sweetened with honey & topped with rolled oats."

It turned out to be exactly what I was in the mood for.  Hearty tasting, with little bits of seeds and whatnot inside, giving it an interesting texture as you bit in.  I really liked the rolled oats on the outside.  It didn't really have much sweetness to it, which was fine with me.

Since I wasn't that hungry, I asked to only have half toasted, so I could take the other half home with me to eat later.  It was decently toasted.  I generally find bagel places under-toast for my liking, so I was happy to see it actually got a bit crispy.

Even when you dine-in, the cream cheese comes in a little sealed container.  I like that they don't apply it themselves, so you can put on the amount you actually want, but it seems funny to slice and toast your bagel for you, and then give you packaged cream cheese on the side.

The cream cheese was way too sweet for my mood however.  It was creamy, had a good distribution of walnut chunks in it, and did go well with the bagel.  I just wasn't all that into it.  I'm also amused that all of their cream cheese flavors, besides plain, are only available in reduced fat form.  Panera is not exactly known for being healthy (seriously, don't look at their nutrition stats.  I expected it for the baked goods and pastas, but was blown away when I saw the numbers for some of their salads and sandwiches.  The turkey sandwich has 49 grams of fat? Many of the salads have 40-50g fat, not including the dressing?  Yet all the cream cheese is reduced fat? So strange.)

I took the other half home and toasted it, and I decided to try other toppings.  I tried it 4 different ways, since I couldn't decide on what I wanted.  Yes, it was just half a bagel, so I cut it into quarters.

The first way I tried it was with my favorite peanut butter melted on.  That was actually pretty tasty, and the hearty flavor of the grains went well with the peanut butter.  The next segment I did with peanut butter and my mom's homemade strawberry jam, as I figured PB&J was better than just PB.  It turned out I was wrong, and liked it more with just the melted peanut butter.  Next up was butter and cinnamon.  Lots of melted butter.  This actually brought out the honey flavor in the bagel itself, and was lighter feeling than the heavy peanut butter.  It also inspired version #4: honey!  I know, I wasn't in the mood for sweet earlier, but I'd changed my mind by this point.  The honey and the oats and the grains all were perfect together.  This was my favorite version, but very simple.  I'm not sure I've ever had just honey on a bagel before.

Anyway, it was a good enough bagel.  Not something to dream about, but if I wanted a bagel, I'd go back to Panera.  I'd probably try other flavors, like the sweet ones, or the blueberry, but if for some reason the mood struck for a hearty bagel, I'd get it again.

The plain bagel is $1.25, the 2 ounce cream cheese container an additional $1.39.  Price seems a little higher than most cafes, mostly for the cream cheese, but not that high.
Pumpkin Pie Bagel.
"Freshly baked bagel made with pumpkin and spice, topped with a blend of crumb and cinnamon crunch topping and dusted with powdered sugar."

This was a strange bagel.  For starters, it didn't have a hole.  I tried a bite of it at room temperature, plain, and I was highly unimpressed.  Sure, it was pumpkin flavored, but it was mostly just dried out bread.

But then I toasted it, and added copious amounts of butter.  It was much better!  Warm, pumpkin bread, with some sweetness to it.  Decent spicing.  The butter added much needed moisture.  On top was a tiny amount of the "crumb and cinnamon crunch topping", but honestly, it was a fairly lame amount.  I would have certainly liked more, but perhaps that would have pushed it too far into the dessert category?  The powered sugar did a good job of sweetening things up just enough.
French Toast Bagel.
"Freshly baked bagel made with sweet maple flavored and cinnamon chips."

Inspired by the pumpkin pie bagel, I went for another sweet one, the french toast.  I love french toast, so this sounded great in name, but I also knew that it was a bagel, not actual french toast.

Like the pumpkin pie, I first tried a bite plain to evaluate it.  Again, just dried and meh.

Once toasted, it improved, but I still wasn't much of a fan.  It smelt amazing, like french toast indeed.  Or, at least, like cinnamon and maple syrup.  But there just wasn't much flavor.  I soaked it in butter, and it was better, but still not great.  I even, uh, dunked a piece in whipped cream, but that didn't help.  I wouldn't get this one again.

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Cinnamon Crunch Bagel

“Cinnamon and vanilla chips flavor the dough, topped with a sweet, crunchy shell of cinnamon & sugar.”

Dry, not that flavorful. But, decent cinnamon flavor, and a nice crunch on top.
Panera Bread Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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